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Ireland: 100,000 rally to back ferry workers
Seafarers win fight against union busting
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 50December 26, 2005


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Ireland: 100,000 rally to back ferry workers
Seafarers win fight against union busting
lead article

AP/Charlie Collins

About 40,000 people march in Dublin, Ireland, December 9 to support workers at Irish Ferries resisting bosses’ attempt to replace them all with nonunion labor, mostly from eastern Europe, who would be paid half the minimum wage. Ferry workers occupied two ships as part of their fight against this union-busting effort.

HOLYHEAD, Wales, December 14—Tens of thousands walked out of factories and offices, and bus and rail services were affected across Ireland December 9 in a mass display of support for the fight against union busting by workers at Irish Ferries. The workers have been fighting plans by the company, which operates car ferries between Ireland and the United Kingdom and France, to replace all its 543 workers with nonunion labor employed at half of Ireland’s minimum wage of 7.65 euros (US$9.10).

An estimated 100,000 workers took part in protest marches called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in the Irish cities of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Athlone, and Rosslare. The national trade union day of protest, the largest in Ireland for decades, was backed by most ICTU-affiliated unions and by the nonaffiliated Association of Secondary Teachers. Unions in the United Kingdom organized a solidarity action in Wales two days before.

As this issue goes to press, the seafarers’ union—Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU)—announced it had reached a settlement with the owners of Irish Ferries. Under the deal, workers would keep their jobs with existing terms, continue to be represented by SIPTU, and no one would be paid below the Irish minimum wage. Some of the workers who have decided to accept redundancy (layoffs) will keep the enhanced payments for the job loss despite threats by the company that these would be withdrawn. Workers at various ships are now voting on the proposal, but one of the boats they had struck, the Jonathan Swift, has already sailed from Dublin to Holyhead.

Since November 25, SIPTU members had been occupying two Irish Ferries ships, the Isle of Inishmore and the Ulysses, docked in the Welsh ports of Pembroke and Holyhead.

In an operation carried out with “military precision,” the London Guardian reported, company-organized gangs of thugs boarded the two ships in civilian clothes. Once on board, they changed into dark uniforms with padded jackets and took up pre-arranged positions. It was then announced over the loudspeakers that they were in control of “security.” After the ships were docked, the bosses planned to bring in a new crew to replace the fired workers.

In response, however, union members occupied the two ships and barricaded themselves inside.

The company tried to employ non-Irish workers, especially from Latvia and Estonia, and to escape Ireland’s minimum wage law by re-registering the ships under the Cyprus flag. It claims that 95 percent of its business competitors are using “outsourced” labor and flying flags of convenience.

Irish Ferries already employs crews of contracted workers on one of its ferries, the MV Normandie, which operates between Rosslare in Ireland and Cherbourg in France, under the flag of the Bahamas. Its sailings have been hit by a SIPTU boycott at Rosslare.

The director of the Latvian seafarers’ register, Jazeps Spridzans, said he doubted that Latvian workers would work for the wages being offered, according to Leta, the national press agency in that Baltic country.

The company currently employs 70 Latvians as sailors, mechanics, and floor staff at a minimum of 8.37 euros (US$9.96) an hour plus meals, uniforms, and round-trip transportation to their country of employment.

ICTU general secretary David Begg told the press that the protests were not aimed against foreign-born workers. “The Congress banner at the head of today’s march puts the case quite emphatically: Equal Rights for All Workers,” he said.

One of the occupying workers, John Curry, told the Guardian, “This is not just about us and our jobs. It’s much wider than that. If this company is allowed to get rid of its workers in one fell swoop, then what’s going to stop other countries across Europe from doing the same?”

The Seamen’s Union of Ireland, which claims to represent 60 percent of the seafarers at Irish Ferries, has not been on strike. It has expressed concern that the company would slash the redundancy terms (severance pay) it has offered and which a majority of its members have accepted.

The dispute at Irish Ferries comes after a similar move by Doyle Concrete, a breeze-block (cinder block) company based in County Kildare, to cut wages and bring in a replacement workforce. A six-week strike at the Doyle’s plant in Rathangan ended when the Labour Court ruled that the company had acted unreasonably in reducing established pay rates.

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